Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) is a seminal work in American cinema; perhaps not so much for its plot or character development (both very fine in their own right, indeed) but because in hindsight the movie ushered in the era of the summer blockbuster. It changed the way the industry markets movies to its audience. However, at the time Jaws was optioned no one – not even its co-producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck knew how big it was going to be.
Like so many movies produced during an era in Hollywood when studios basically took chances, there was no bench mark – no barometer to predict its success. Movies about perils at sea – natural, manmade or supernatural - were basically fodder for the ‘B’ syndicate. In fact, years later David Brown insisted that had he the opportunity to re-read the manuscript more than once his enthusiasm probably would have cooled to the point of cancelling his option, as Jaws was a movie fraught with technical challenges that dwarfed its rather miniscule budget.
The film is very loosely based on Robert Benchley’s novel of the same name. Zanuck and Brown optioned the story for $175,000 while it was still in galleys. But very quickly it became clear to both producers that Benchley’s multi-narrative approach would have to be distilled into more straight forward screenwriting prose. Zanuck and Brown first contacted John Sturges to direct the film. But he so incensed the pair by chronically referring to the fish in the story as a whale instead of a shark that he quickly fell out of their favour. Enter Steven Spielberg, who had already directed Sugarland Express for the pair and also had read Benchley’s manuscript.
Spielberg came to the project well versed – perhaps a little too intensely. He astutely reasoned that Benchley had created a novel with some fairly disreputable characters. These would have to be softened, omitted or extensively revised before Spielberg would commit to the project. Zanuck and Brown wholeheartedly agree. But Spielberg also had another suggestion. Basically, he really didn’t care to shoot the novel as written, but wanted to do the sea hunt (the last third) and a complete revision on the first two thirds of the story.
After some consternation Benchley was brought in to reconceive his story for the screen. He offered Spielberg three extensive revisions – none entirely satisfying. Undaunted, Spielberg turned to some fairly weighty writing talent and was all but turned down flat for his efforts. At this point, Spielberg had begun to have second thoughts about directing the film too, fearing that he would be typecast as a director of fantasy/horror.
Zanuck and Brown made Spielberg a very sweet offer to remain on the project and Spielberg, in turn, found a kindred spirit in friend, Carl Gottlieb, who agreed to infuse the screenplay with some wittier lines and more humour. Eventually Gottlieb rewrote roughly two thirds of the final draft from scratch. As such very little remains of Benchley’s narrative and many of his central characters underwent enormous changes from page to screen.
Zanuck and Brown wanted ‘name’ talent to headline the cast. Spielberg balked at using stars, first because their salary would be a strain on the film’s budget, but more importantly, because he felt anonymity would be more effective for the narrative. Reluctantly, Robert Duvall was offered the role of Police Chief Brody. He was quickly dropped from consideration after the actor informed the company he was only interested in playing Quint. Charlton Heston made it known he too was interested in Quint.
Again, Spielberg pressed for inconspicuousness and was rewarded for his obstinacy when Roy Scheider came up for the role. Although Scheider – a former amateur boxer, had made a name for himself in Freidkin’s The French Connection, and had been working regularly in films for over a decade, he had not broken through with audiences and was not ‘a star’ per say. Moreover, he possessed an earthy quality that Spielberg felt bode well with the role of the relaxed police chief.
The roles of Quint and Hooper would remain vacant right up until principle photography began. Some heavy hitters backed away at the eleventh hour, including Lee Marvin, John Voight – whom Spielberg had desperately wanted for Hooper - and Jeff Bridges. Eventually, Robert Shaw warmed to the idea of playing Quint – encouraged by his wife.
Richard Dreyfuss came recommended by George Lucas, who had already used the actor to good effect in American Grafitti. Dreyfuss was not all that enthused about committing to the project until he viewed rushes from his latest film, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and was so appalled by his performance that he feared no one would hire him once that film was released. Spielberg encouraged Dreyfuss to not read Benchley’s novel as Hooper had been extensively rewritten by Gottlieb so that nothing of the original character but the name remained.
Cast and crew began shooting Jaws in Martha’s Vineyard on May 2, 1974 where Spielberg quickly realized his problems were just beginning. The mechanical sharks – affectionately nicknamed ‘Bruce’ were technological disasters that failed to perform convincingly on camera. As such, Spielberg was forced to improvise the shark attacks with specially created submersible equipment that simulated the perspective of the great white as it approached its victims from beneath the waves. Today, many people forget that the only time the mechanical shark makes its debut in the film is during the sea hunt sequence – the last shot before cast and crew returned home to Hollywood. Even then, ‘Bruce’ is used sparingly, the camera focusing on close ups of the terrified actors and long shots of an ominous fin barely cresting above the waves.
The trick and the magic of these shortcomings is that, while technically limiting, from a purely visceral standpoint they generated nail-biting tension. Who can forget the film’s opener, shot in moonlit nudity as stunt woman Susan Backlinie feels an ominous tug from beneath the calm waters? Or the sequence that unfolds as a playful afternoon at the beach but turns bloody after the brief glimpse of a fin suddenly overturns a child lying on his inflatable raft while the rest of the sun worshipers helplessly look on. Realizing that the unseen is far more devastating to the human psyche, Spielberg taps into our collective fear of the unknown. Like the bloody shower slaughter of Marion Crane in Hitchcock’s Psycho we see very little, but imagine a great deal and are shell shocked by nothing more than the movie playing inside our own heads.
The screenplay, co-credited to Gottlieb and Benchley, opens with the disappearance of Chrissie Watkins (Susan Backlinie); a spirited teen who leaves a beach party to go skinny dipping along the coast of Amity Island and is never heard from again. Deputy Hendricks (Jeffrey C. Kramer) finds the girl’s remains twenty-four hours later, eaten and entangled in some ship’s tackle strewn along the dunes. The medical examiner (Robert Nevin) concludes what Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) already knows: that Chrissie was the victim of a brutal shark attack.
Brody shares his findings with town council but is encouraged by Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) to keep this discovery under wraps. Like most of the vendors on Amity Island, Vaughn is worried that news of a great white will ruin the summer tourist trade. Against Brody’s better judgement he remains silent about Chrissie’s death, garnering support from his wife, Ellen (Lorraine Gray) who also keeps the findings from their two young sons, Michael (Chris Rebello) and Sean (Jay Mello).
Amity welcomes its first round of seasonal visitors to its July 4th respite. Unaware of the looming danger the crowds go into the water, including Alex Kintner (Jeffrey Voorhees) who is suddenly swallowed up as Brody and the rest of the panicked masses look on. Learning of the previous incident, the boy’s mother, Mrs. Kintner (Lee Fierro) blames Brody for her son’s death. Guilt ridden, Brody challenges Vaughn to be more proactive. A local fisherman, Quint (Robert Shaw) offers to lead the hunt for the murderous fish with Brody and marine biologist, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) determined to get in on the action.
The trio board Quint’s fishing boat, the Orca, and head into open waters. The trip is uneventful – at first. But when Brody tosses fresh chum into the sea he is confronted by a terror more magnificent than any he could have imagined on shore. Quint attempts to harpoon the shark but fails on his first attempt. The fish goes away, leaving the men to contemplate their next course of action.
That night Quint relays his tale of surviving the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during the war. It begins to don on Hooper and Brody that Quint is not altogether a stable man and these suspicions are confirmed the following day when Quint deliberately destroys the ship’s radio as Brody attempts to contact the Coast Guard for additional help. The great white resurfaces and Quint harpoons another barrel into the beast.
The men grab hold of the line, hoping to bring the shark to the surface and suffocate it. Instead, it drags the Orca’s stern deeper into the sea, causing water to flood its decks. In desperation, Hooper enters a shark proof cage with a spear full of strychnine. Jaws strikes the cage and Hooper drops the spear without ever getting the opportunity to defend himself. The great white leaps onto the boat deck, tearing the back off the Orca and chewing Quint in two before dragging him under the waves. Mortally wounded; the Orca founders. Brody manages to jam a scuba tank into the shark’s mouth. He fires a round from his rifle into its compressed canister and the fish is blown to bits. Only afterwards does Brody realize he is not alone. Hooper surfaces amid the Orca’s debris. The two regard one another in their victory with a hearty laugh and begin to dog paddle back to shore.
Viewed today, Jaws has lost none of its primeval energy. Spielberg’s attention to pacing, his detailed subterfuge at keeping ‘Bruce’ the mechanical shark hidden from view until the very last act, creates an ever mounting atmosphere of uncertainty that expertly plays on our collective fear of both the water and the creatures that lurk beneath its relatively calm surface. From this disquieting vantage, Spielberg calibrates the tension into a seat-squirming climax before unleashing his frenzied finale, using a series of proficiently edited jump cuts that give the audience their fleeting glimpses of that terror of the sea.
Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw and Murray Hamilton all do their part to add a layer of convincing verisimilitude. But the reluctant star of Jaws is arguably Bruce, the mechanical shark. In his absence (due to technical snafus), Spielberg applies a very old tried and true formula that peaks our fascination for the unseen: the Mr. Woo approach to film making. Basically, the first two thirds of Jaws baits the audience with the prospect of seeing a great white up close and personal. We are so acutely attuned to this promise that when ‘Bruce’ finally makes his debut the sheer size and spectacle of this violent eating machine is enough to rattle us from our chairs.
Spielberg is ably aided in his restraint by John Williams’ memorably pensive score, its repetitive two note structure faintly reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s grating strings in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Watching Jaws with its soundtrack turned off one is immediately reminded of Williams’ monumental contribution to the film. His music creates a disturbing visual for the audience from nothing more than a few underwater panning shots of the sea bed.
None of the Jaws sequels, except maybe Jaws II, seems to have learned this trick for concealment. Instead, with each passing instalment we are given more blood in the water. But Spielberg’s classic doesn’t appeal to our need for gore and that’s most commendable. He transforms what might otherwise have been a thoroughly pedestrian horror movie into the epitome of a good fright had by all.
Universal Home Video unleashes Jaws in 1080p with most welcomed results. The image is not razor sharp, as it should be, perfectly realizing Bill Butler’s soft focused cinematography. Better still, Universal has shown great restraint in applying less than its usual modicum of DNR. The results: an image richly textured with bold colours and film grain well represented. It’s gratifying to see Jaws looking so fine on Blu-ray. Colour correction has eradicated the strange blue-greenish tint that plagued previous DVD incarnations. Sandy beaches at long last look sandy brown, rather than muddy gray. Flesh tones are very natural. Fine details abound. The 7.1 audio will amaze. Incredible separation and spatiality render John Williams’ score a primal experience not to be missed.
Extras abound. Not only do we get the full 2 hr. making of Jaws, we also get a nearly 2 hour documentary on the legacy and impact of the movie, plus an insider’s look at the film, a restoration featurette, deleted scenes and outtakes, an impressive backlog of stills and promotional junkets and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Regrettably, the making of Jaws is still in 480i. It’s a genuine shame that Universal has never seen the validity in remastering its documentaries. We’ve had similar short shrift for the docs on To Kill A Mockingbird, Out of Africa and The Sting. Note to Universal: these docs are phenomenally well researched and produced. Please, for further reissues, do us all a favour and restore them to a viewable level of video quality. Otherwise, Jaws on Blu-ray is a no brainer. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)